by Julie Stewart, MARINE curriculum intern
I never thought that I could talk about Humboldt squid for seven and a half hours nearly non-stop. Or that I could do it for two days in a row. But it turns out that I can – this is how I spent October 23rd and 24th in Washington, DC at the first annual USA Science and Engineering Festival.
My Ph.D. advisor Dr. William Gilly and I went to the festival to represent Hopkins Marine Station and Stanford University through our outreach program called Squids-4-Kids. (Read more in the Stanford Daily) This is a program we formed along with our colleagues at NOAA Fisheries in Santa Cruz to send Humboldt squid to classrooms all over the nation. We also go to local classrooms and conduct dissections, which is a really fun way to interact with kids and get them interested in marine biology.
We were joined in DC by Ken Baltz (one of our colleagues at NOAA) and Katharine Dickson (an undergraduate cephalopod enthusiast!). These were 4-5 foot, ~20 pound squid that just barely met the weight limit for checked luggage when we flew from San Jose. Throughout the weekend we had one squid on display intact, and a second one that was being dissected. Kids were able to wear gloves and touch both squid. They were also able to make tentacle prints, a finger-paint-based tribute to the Japanese art technique Gyotaku.
Throughout weekend we talked with hundreds of kids and parents about many aspects of squid, from the molecular level (squid ink is made partly of melanin, the same pigment that gives our skin color) to the ecological level (Humboldt squid mainly eat fish, and are in turn eaten by sperm whales, sharks and dolphins) to the oceanographic level (Humboldt squid are able to live in a wide range of depths, temperatures, and oxygen concentrations). It was really fun to discuss so many different topics pertaining to squid.
Gilly, a neurophysiologist, takes great care to dissect the squids' giant axons, stellate ganglia and optic lobes while discussing how each of these things function within the body. He really engaged the kids as they discussed how everything is connected and controlled neurally, and how this is similar or different to humans. I like to talk about the larger-scale anatomy of Humboldt squid and how they are adapted to their environment. Squid swim by jet propulsion, but this is also how they breathe. And because they can change the direction of their siphon (the structure with which they jet water at high pressure), they can change swimming direction rapidly, which gives them a unique advantage for hunting prey and for avoiding predators.
This was a huge festival, with over five hundred exhibitors. Kids could learn about their DNA using gumdrops and toothpicks, drive robots and miniature underwater remotely operated vehicles, learn about recycling and sustainable building, or learn about Jellywatch with MBARI's Steve Haddock. Overall, the USA Science and Engineering Festival, which was the culmination of Science Week, was a huge success. Kids were really engaged in learning about such an alien species, which means we will likely be flying cross-country with our squid again next year!